<em>This editorial was originally published May 10 in The Washington Post. </em>
The horrific bombing of a school for girls in Kabul on Saturday was a grim presage of the catastrophe Afghanistan — and, in particular, its women — may suffer with the withdrawal of U.S. and other international forces.
Three bombs killed at least 85 people and wounded more than 147 — most of them girls in their teens from the Hazara Shiite minority. The Taliban, which has often targeted that group as well as girls’ education more generally, denied responsibility. But the slaughter came as the insurgents are escalating attacks around the country, while refusing to negotiate in good faith with the U.S.-backed government.
As The Post’s Susannah George and Aziz Tassal have reported, the Taliban has been massing forces around a number of provincial capitals since May 1. It has overrun a number of Afghan bases, even as U.S. air support for the Afghan army has dwindled, and set up numerous checkpoints along the main highways leading in and out of Kabul. Inside the capital, key government and aid workers have been targeted for assassination.
Taliban spokesmen claim they do not intend to take over the country by force following the U.S. withdrawal, which is due to be completed by Sept. 11, and it’s not clear whether they could do so before the onset of winter. But Mr. Biden’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces has so far brought about a rapid and ominous deterioration in the government’s position and in security for Afghans who support it. If it continues, the result could be a collapse of the political system and civil society the United States spent two decades helping to build, a resurgence of Afghan-based international terrorism, and another massive wave of refugees headed toward fragile neighboring countries as well as Europe.
The State Department’s statement condemning the school bombing said the Biden administration “will continue to support and partner with the people of Afghanistan, who are determined to see to it that the gains of the past two decades aren’t erased.” U.S. officials have expressed the hope that, if it does return to power, the Taliban will ease its repressive policies toward women and denial of other human rights to avoid international pariah status. However, a recently declassified assessment by the National Intelligence Council was not optimistic, concluding that the movement would “roll back much of the past two decades’ progress.” In many areas the Taliban now controls, women are largely banned from working outside the home, and schools for girls don’t operate above the primary level, if they exist at all.
The administration apparently is seeking to hedge against a revival of terrorist bases or threat to the U.S. Embassy in Kabul by basing aircraft, troops and equipment elsewhere in the region; the Wall Street Journal reported Saturday that Central Asian countries bordering Afghanistan may be approached. That raises the question of why the United States does not simply retain its relatively small footprint in Afghanistan, which in recent years has consumed less than 10 percent of the Pentagon’s budget and cost few U.S. casualties.
It may, alas, be too late for that. But the Biden administration should be prepared to step up its air support for Afghan forces to ensure that any Taliban offensive against Kabul or other major cities can be turned back. It should also accelerate plans to grant visas, and if necessary, provide evacuation to the many Afghans who supported the U.S. mission and now face grave risks.